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patfrench

Stop Making Sense

I read anything that's nailed down, or even just moving slowly. Cereal boxes, candy wrappers, all genres, etc., and I don't always have much time for arbitrary distinctions like literary fiction vs. genre fiction.

Swing and a Miss

The First Century After Beatrice - Amin Maalouf

 This book isn't written as a typical novel...there is no growth or character arc for the narrator, a scientist who is writing a series of letters to his daughter, Beatrice. The letters tell her the story of how a "substance" was developed that ensured the birth only of baby boys.

Interesting premise, but Maalouf doesn't actually describe the effects very much, let alone the effects on the women themselves. When women are scarce, particularly in patriarchical societies, guess what happens? Do the women rule, have power, control their own bodies? Hell, no. They're kept under lock and key and lose all agency. But he doesn't tell his daughter that. Nope, it's all about the poor men--they can't find brides, etc.

I'd recommend this one for people who liked The Handmaid's Tale, but don't expect standard storytelling--the father's "voice" is affected and academic.

A Georgian Columbo...

A Dark Anatomy - Robin Blake

It's not often you read a murder mystery set in 1740s England. This should have been right up my Anglophile alley, but it just felt like a slog, with an unearned denouement at the end.

Titus Cragg is a prosperous attorney in the town of Preston, and he does double-duty as the town's coroner. He's called out to investigate the discovery of a body in the woods, which turns out to belong to the wife of the local hot-headed squire. With his physician friend Luke Fidelis, Cragg uncovers facts implicating this person and that person. As always, there are red herrings and false trails, with another couple of bodies piling up along the way.

Strengths: Preston was (and is) an actual town in the U.K., and the picture of life back then is well done. I have to admit I didn't know much about what happened in England in the years between the plague era and the Regency period, so it was interesting from that perspective.

Weaknesses: I mentioned the problems with pacing above. Add to this a lack of character development--except for the deceased, none of the characters are materially changed because of the events of the book. Finally, Titus Cragg is not a particularly sympathetic character--he's got all the classist and sexist trappings of a well-to-do man of his time, and looks down on "Papists" as irrational while simultaneously arranging for a stake to be driven through the heart of a corpse to keep its spirit from haunting the town. Right. He also lies when it serves his purposes. I do think he's probably historically accurate, so if that's your cup of tea, go for it.

West vs. East in Letters

84, Charing Cross Road - Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Road is a slim collection of letters sent between Helene Hanff, a New Yorker working on the Ellery Queen TV show, and Marks & Co., a London shop that sold used/rare books. It's the slangy, sarcastic, informal American vs. the proper, reserved Brits, with humor and goodwill on both sides.

The book, although slight, is entertaining, and I'm a sucker for the epistolary format. I did wonder where Helene kept finding the money over the years to buy these books and to send care packages overseas to the Brits, but not to actually go visit them. Curious. I also wondered how the letters came to be published. Finally, how did Helene find out about the book shop in the first place? The world was a much bigger place back then, after all. An afterward giving a little more of the context would have been appreciated.

But this is nitpicking. I'd recommend this one for epistolary fans and those interested in post-WW II England and America. It shouldn't take you more than a few hours to knock it out.

It's the End of the World as We Know It, and...

World of Trouble - Ben H. Winters

The third book in this preapocalypic trilogy finds Hank searching for his estranged sister Nico, so he can make amends before It's Too Late. His pursuit takes him from the Northeast to the Midwest, accompanied by Houdini, his ailing dog, and Cortez, a thief that he liberates from jail. At this point, the end of the world is 6 days away, and coming fast.

Hank and Cortez have taken to labeling towns as Blue, Green, Red, etc., based on the color of the Post-It Notes they have with them. Blue towns seem to be empty; Green towns are still in denial, so it's business as usual, and Red towns are on fire, literally or figuratively. Our heroes pass through all the colors on their road trip to the west, ending up at the police station of a small town in Ohio. There, they find evidence that Nico has been there, and might still be, if they can just crack through some concrete leading to stairs below the basement. At the same time, they find evidence of gruesome violence--bloodied knives and blood trails leading in and out of the police station. Whose blood is it?

Winters outdoes himself with this one: the police procedural/mystery aspects were very satisfying, and the twists made complete sense. The various flavors of human nature were all done well, too. But what packs the most punch is the constant tick-tick-tick of the clock. No do-overs, no second chances--this is it. When you know it's the last time you're going to do something, see something, it means more. Everything means more in World of Trouble.

This is another one of those books that follows the adage: "Science fiction isn't the story; it's the setting." Great ending to a unique trilogy.

An Urban Fantasy/Mystery/Legal Thriller Mashup, with Humans, Vampires, and Gargoyles (whew)

Three Parts Dead - Max Gladstone

There's a LOT going on in this debut novel, and some of it is pulled off better than other stuff.

Pluses:
--kick-ass protagonist. Tara is a young woman of color who's been expelled from a school of Craft (magic using power from the stars, souls, and other sources), who is hired by....
--a kick-ass secondary character. Ms. Elayne Kevorian is a private investigator from a well-respected firm, who's been engaged to discover how and why a god named Kos has been killed. As it turns out, sometime in the past she had had a relationship with a ...
--kick-ass creepy character, which Did Not End Well. I pictured this guy as an evil George Clooney--smooth, manipulative, charming, but COLD underneath. He's representing clients who are protesting the provisions of Kos' "will," so to speak (commitments that the god made that must be honored upon his death).
--All of this action takes place in a port city called Alt Coulumb, which I pictured as a gothic Gotham--there are gargoyles on the buildings, and a central temple dedicated to Kos the Everburning, the recently departed god. I especially liked the details of the economics of this city, which many fantasy books overlook. The universe as a whole is a mishmash of vampires, god(esse)s, supernatural shapeshifters, humans, shades, etc., but I thought it worked.

Minuses:
--the uneven pacing. It never felt like the book settled down into a rhythm of steadily building tension, which is what you want in a mystery investigation. The switching POVs weren't always done well, either.
--the main character (Tara) was a bit of a Mary Sue. It didn't feel like she was in actual mortal danger sometimes.
--In the end, it didn't seem to me to be Tara's story at all. Turned out that two of the other characters were actually calling the shots behind the scenes. That's fine, and I've seen that done well, but it felt like a bit of a cheat, like Tara wasn't the hero of her own story.

I liked the universe, so I'm glad to see that this is the first in a series set there. I think the author shows great promise--I'll be interested to see what his later books are like (3 of them, at last count). I'd recommend this book to fans of fantasy, urban fantasy, and possibly paranormal romance, although that's not a particular focus of this book.

Mismarketing of a Decent Book

The Girl in the Road - Monica Byrne

This is the story--told in alternating, first-person chapters--of Meena and Mariama, who are heading toward each other but separated by about 20 years. Meena is fleeing west after an apparent assassination attempt back in her Indian home, whereas Mariama is heading east from Mauritania, after witnessing an attack on her mother. Linking their stories is the Trail, or Trans-Arabian Linear Generator, a series of flat voltaic cells (scales) that harness energy from the waves in the Arabian Sea.

The Trail is the one and only reason to shelve this book in the Science Fiction section. Otherwise, it's literary fiction. If you go into it expecting the latter type of ride, it's pretty good. The writing is lovely, for the most part. The sexuality is also generally handled well, except that rape is (yet again, and still, and my god, when are writers going to pick something else??) used as a plot device.

The book telegraphs its metaphors a bit too loudly in places (yes, we know what snakes represent), robbing the ending of some of its punch. And I have to say it: the ending is confusing. I read it several times, and I'm stumped about what certain characters were meant to represent.

In the end, I'm glad I read it. The parts where Meena is discarding excess baggage and getting down to her core were my favorite. I'd recommend this book to feminists, survival story fans, and anyone who enjoys good writing.

A Classic Psychological Thriller

Rebecca -  Daphne du Maurier, Sally Beauman

This is a deceptively simple story, but it's a classic for a reason. There is so much going on here!

On its face, it's the story of an insecure, inexperienced nameless(!) bride who is swept off her feet and brought to the fancy estate of her new husband, a recent widower. Once there, she finds herself being compared to his first wife, Rebecca, who was by all accounts beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, popular, independent, and a force of nature. Isolated and lacking self-esteem, the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself falling into self-doubt, paranoia, and despair, aided by the gaslighting housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (who adored Rebecca).

I don't want to give away all the twists and turns here, but let's just say that du Maurier has the major plot pivot happen about halfway through the book and STILL has you turning the pages impatiently 'til the end; it's that good.

Perhaps the most brilliant aspect is that she makes you, the reader, complicit in some of the shenanigans. You find yourself rooting for people whom you might otherwise be horrified by, and that takes skill. You also might not realize until much later that there were more victims than you thought (sorry for the vagueness) and fewer heroes. The book also has an opening sentence for the ages, and perfect bookends of opening/closing.

It's not a perfect book--some of the prose can be a bit turgid for today's audiences (that's why I took half a star off). But if you're a fan of Jane Eyre, try this one--it's outstanding.

Focused on the Wrong Character...

Frog Music - Emma Donoghue

Based on a true story, Frog Music is ostensibly about solving the murder of Jenny, a woman who was independent at a time when that was really, really threatening. But it is actually the story of Blanche, a French immigrant who isn't independent for most of the book. Too bad. Because although Jenny is interesting and mysterious, Blanche is unlikeable, poorly drawn, blind (in the emotional sense), and too stupid to live, in some ways.

It doesn't help that the author focuses on ooh-la-la highlighting of sex, straight or otherwise. Here's a hint: there's really nothing new under the sun, OK?

And although Donoghue clearly researched 1876 San Francisco, she beats us over the head with it--a book set in the aftermath of the Gold Rush, when people all over the world were flocking to the City by the Bay, shouldn't be a slog. But this one is. I started skimming about halfway through the book; I couldn't help it.

And finally, the solution to the "mystery" feels cheap. There's no buildup, no foreshadowing, except through the crutch of jumps back and forth in time. The setup wouldn't have held if the story had been told in a linear structure.

What Donoghue did do well was portray the Chinese immigrants and madams/prostitutes working in the city, and the general sense of squalor mixed with possibility. She also gave us a vivid character in Jenny--I would have liked to have read her story.

I'd recommend this for people especially interested in San Francisco, but read it for the setting, not the story.

Survival Is Insufficient

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

If there was ever an illustration of "Science fiction is the setting, not the story," this is it. I'd put Station Eleven up against an Annie Proulx any day of the week. A litfic postapocalyptic novel, is what it is.

 

"Survival is insufficient." That's what one of the characters has tattooed on her arm, and it's the motto of a traveling symphony/performing company that wanders the wasteland after a disaster. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

 

Our story opens as Arthur, a veteran actor playing King Lear in Toronto, has a heart attack onstage. Little do the rest of the people realize that they have only days left to live themselves, because the extremely deadly Georgia Flu is already on the loose. But Arthur has one more role to play--he turns out to be the common denominator for the characters who do survive.

 

This isn't a book about how a disaster unfolds, really. It's about adaptation, overcoming despair, hope, and the need for art and beauty in dark times. Through the various plot lines, we see people doing the best they can to create meaning and community--for better or worse.

 

Strengths:
--Using Toronto as Ground Zero, rather than the cliched NYC or LA.
--The language is beautiful, haunting, and evocative.

 

Weaknesses:
--There ARE diseases that can kill as quickly as the Georgia Flu, but they're vanishingly rare, especially in cold climates like Canada's. This is a minor nitpick, though--the biology isn't the point of the story.

 

This is a gorgeous book. Come for the disaster; stay for the mastery in storytelling.

SPOILER ALERT!

Unflinching, Unique Time-Travel Novel

Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

[spoiler]What do you do when, in order to exist, you have to allow the rape of another character, a woman just like you? Yeah. That's just ONE of the big questions being asked in this novel.[/spoiler]

I'm sorry to say that it's taken me this long to get around to Octavia Butler's books, if the others are as powerful as Kindred. Dana, a woman living in then-present-day (1976) Los Angeles who is married to an older white man, is pulled back in time to 1812 Maryland, which was then a "Southern" state. She finds herself administering mouth-to-mouth to a young white boy (Rufus), and then facing a shotgun in the hands of his angry father. Before anything else can happen, though, she's pulled back to Los Angeles, where she and her husband Kevin try to make sense out of what just happened.

Turns out that Rufus will grow up to be her ancestor, and Dana keeps getting sent back in time when he's in grave danger. This sets up the situation mentioned above: [spoiler]for Dana to exist, Rufus must rape one of his slaves, Alice, who has already asked Dana for help in escaping. This is the crux of the book, in my opinion.[/spoiler]

Along the way, Butler explores slave culture in general, how easy it is to adapt to a horrible situation (for whites and blacks) when your survival depends on it, and the dynamics of a marriage, especially when there are racial and age imbalances, among other themes.

This was one of the first non-comedic time-travel novels (yeah, I'm looking at you, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). In 2015, Kindred might seem a little heavy-handed and obvious in places, but back in 1976, it would have been closer to groundbreaking. For one thing, Dana's travel back to 1812 isn't under her control, unlike books such as H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. For another, it's one of the few with a female protagonist, and it does an outstanding job of countering the typical "go back or forward in time and have adventures" trope that male characters typically do--in many times and in many places, there have been consequences to being female, and especially being black and female. The book also shines a light on the prevailing culture in a crystal clear, nonromantic way. I haven't such an immersive portrayal in a time-travel book since Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, which was actually published later (1992).

One interesting tidbit: 1976 also saw the publication of Alex Hailey's seminal book Roots, a huge hit in both book and later TV miniseries forms. People looking for an education on the early black experience in the U.S. could do worse that diving into these two books published in the country's Bicentennial year.

Jane Austen Does Ocean's Twelve

Valour and Vanity - Mary Robinette Kowal

(not Eleven, Twelve--the one where they rob an Italian museum of a Faberge egg and leave a replica in its place).

So, if you've read the other Glamourist History books, you know what to expect re: Regency language, mores, manners, etc. But what this one adds are large streaks of humor and hijinks. It's not ALL fun and games for Jane and Vincent, not by a long shot, but they'll get by somehow and get even if they can. Other strengths include the excellent sense of place (the island of Murano and Venice itself), Lord Byron's(!) characterization, and the more complex plotting, which MRK pulls off most satisfyingly.

Weaknesses: The title--I understand wanting to continue the Austen feel, but it really has nothing to do with the events of the book. Also, Jane's characterization felt a bit off in places--specifically, her continuing and unnecessary guilt about something major that happened in the last book (no spoilers!). It just seems like Jane would have come to terms with it by now, instead of being triggered so often. But this is minor.

I plan to keep reading the books as long as MRK keeps writing them...they just keep getting better.

Crash and Burn at a Home Shopping Network

Sellevision - Augusten Burroughs

Here's the ins and outs of a home shopping network cast of characters, as told via the warped perspective of the man who gave us Running with Scissors.

Things are humming along nicely for everyone at Sellevision when one fine day, one of the senior hosts accidentally exposes himself during a live segment aimed at children and their parents. Turns out to be the beginning of a major downward spiral for the network. Shortly after, another host finds herself the target of a stalker and becomes progressively (and hilariously) unhinged. A third exposes her boss/lover live on the air during a Simulated Ruby Sensations segment, and the fourth, a compulsive shopper, finds love in an unexpected place.

This one is a wicked romp that manages to skewer television/film personalities, shopping culture, NYC culture, suburbia, religion, 12-step programs, and a host of other sacred cows. Those are the book's strengths. The main weakness is that it leans a little too hard on the train-wrecky side of absurdity in places--there's a definite sense of "what more can I pile on here?" just for the sake of it, in other words. But it's still fun.

SPOILER ALERT!
The Untold - Courtney Collins

 

This is the fictionalized story of Jessie Hickman/Henry/Bell/Hunt/Payne, a horse rustler in 1840s Australia, a wild and harsh place. When the book opens, Jessie has just killed someone and is on the run (again). The book tells the story of her journey toward the wilderness mountains, where she figures she can disappear. In the meantime, two men are chasing her, and they won't give up.

The book is beautifully written, and it has an interesting style of detached, almost dreamy language describing extremely harsh, violent settings and events. The lack of dialog tags (all dialog is in italics) helps with the stream-of-consciousness feel to the writing, but not in an overbearing way. I can see where it might get confusing at times, but I didn't have any trouble following it. I *will* say that the preface didn't become clear to me until an embarassingly long time after I'd finished the last page. Dur.

Gotta be honest, though--I almost threw up (and threw the book down) when I got to page 9, and I'm no lightweight. It's brutal, seriously.

[In the opening chapter (after the preface), Jessie goes into labor 2 months early, just after she's killed someone and needs to get away immediately. The baby is in trouble, but Jessie can't produce milk or help the baby breathe, so Jessie digs a grave, slits the baby's throat, buries her, and goes on her way. The rest of the book is then told mostly from the buried baby's perspective, which was really hard to take in places (the author does slip into limited third-person here and there).]

(show spoiler)


I would recommend this book to people who like stories about outlaws, rustlers, the Australian Outback, and survival. I would NOT recommend this book to people sensitive to violence.

When Retail Meets Lovecraft...

Horrorstor -  Grady Hendrix

If you're a fan of Then We Came to the End (by Joshua Ferriss) and, say, The Amityville Horror or The Fog, you're probably going to like this book.

Our story opens as protagonist Amy, a young store associate at Ikea stand-in Orsk, is slightly late to work and aiming to avoid her gung-ho Floor Manager, Basil. No such luck. As it happens, the ID scanner is down, creating a logjam of people trying to get into the building, and that's just the beginning of the weird things that happen over the next 12 hours.

Turns out that Corporate(TM) is coming in the morning, and Basil asks Amy and Ruth-Anne, a nice, hardworking older associate, to work an off-the-books overnight shift to uncover the culprit behind some shenanigans that have been happening in the wee hours. Our three heroes, along with 1) a couple of interloper employees hoping to capture ghosts on film, and 2) a seemingly homeless man who's been camping out in the store after hours, get caught up in a series of increasingly creepy and then outright horrifying events.

Disclosure: I'm not a big horror fan, but this one stayed on the right side of the line as far as I'm concerned. But the best reason to read this book, aside from the satisfying character development and excellent pacing, is the relentless skewering of companies like Ikea that aim to create not just a brand, but also a culture (see also: Apple, Starbucks, and Disney). Each chapter opens with a product page from the Orsk "catalog," highlighting one of their "shelving solutions" or dining tables that are actually gathering places for making memories, blah, blah, you get the idea. As the book continues, the products become, well, a little weird, which is tons of fun.

I'm not going to spoil the reveal or ending, but let's just say that Orsk should have picked a different place for their store. :-) I liked this one a bunch.

Dark Adventure in the Weird West...

The Half-Made World - Felix Gilman

3.5 stars

I really liked this one. It's got elements of Manifest Destiny; The Wild, Wild West; The Dark Tower; and China Mieville's Railsea all mashed up into a nice dark adventure.

The story weaves together several arcs, but they all center on what might be contained in a former general's head. On the one hand, we have The Line, an industrial, train-driven culture that consumes and dominates everywhere it goes, leaving behind noise, pollution, industry, and discipline. On another, we have their sworn enemies, the Agents of the Gun, men and women who are controlled by a supernatural committee of spirits (for lack of a better word--they communicate by speaking directly into their agents' heads). On the third hand, we have remnants of The Republic, who had aimed to steer clear of both sides and live their own lives in peace, but who were broken in battle. The General was left for dead in one such battle as the book opens, but his broken mind might have information about a weapon that could decide the contest between The Line and the Agents of the Gun. The chase is on!

Our protagonists:
--Dr. Lysvet (Liv) Alverhuysen, a neurologist from the settled East, who is heading west to treat the General. She'd have been played by Katharine Hepburn, back in the day.
--John Creedmoor, an Agent of the Gun who aims to track down the General for his Masters, but who's also having doubts about this whole subservience thing. He's a cynic, a wiseass, and could have been played by Humphrey Bogart.
--Sub-Invigilator (Third) Lowry of the Army of the Angelus Engine (of The Line), who's also tracking down the General. He has no doubts about his duty at all...he will follow through to the bitter end.

The book follows our cast as Liv heads west to the hospital where the General is a patient, and then into the wilds as the net closes on them. The journey, the building tension, and the three-way battle climax are very satisfying, but the very last pieces of the story seem a bit abrupt and thin, which was a disappointment. I just discovered that there is a sequel, though, so maybe that one gives us more.

As I said, I liked this one very much. The world-building is excellent, as are the pacing and the characterizations. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Lost in Space...

The Martian - Andy Weir

Oh, this one pushed so many of my buttons (in a good way):

--it's a survival story
--starring a wiseass
--set in space
--and it has a solid science background

I loved this book. I took off half a star because the editing could have been a bit tighter, but this is a piddly criticism. Let me put it this way: When I had finished it the first time, I promptly went back to the beginning and started it all over again. I didn't want it to be over, and I don't give higher praise than that.

Summary: Astronaut Mark Watney has been stranded on Mars, left there by his crewmates under the assumption that he's dead (hint: he's not). Using his skills as a botanist and an engineer, he MacGuyvers his way into surviving and coming up with a plan to communicate with Earth and maybe even get home in one piece.

I wouldn't spoil the events of this book for the, well, world, so you'll be lucky enough to read it for yourself. This is the best storytelling I've seen in a long time. Have fun.